When I moved to Sarasota and bought my first pair of Nike running shoes, my husband Bob commented dryly, "This running phase of yours--I give it a month." But after 24 years, the birth of three children and countless miles of jogging in paradise, I am more hooked than ever. Sarasota offers both the serious racer and the recreational plodder such as me all the necessary ingredients for fun and fitness: safe courses, available water and bathrooms, good company and great scenery. We can be found everywhere, scantily clad in spandex, enjoying beaches and bridges, palm-studded pathways, golf courses and roadways shaded by tall, whispering Australian pines.
It's not just the scenery, but the friendships forged by dark, early morning runs that keep us running. My pals Mary Jane, Lorraine and I have run together for more than 11 years now. They have helped me through the best and worst of my life. My husband and I lost our brave, talented 14-year-old son Christopher to leukemia July 2001, and while nothing can completely heal the wound, my friends and running have kept me upright and in motion. We are a moving trio of group therapy, finding our own rhythm, laughing and splashing through puddles. Secrets shared on those early morning jaunts are kept forever. Only friends you can spit in front of and pee in the bushes with can truly understand.
The best organized runners' group is the Manasota Track Club. I have been a member for 21 years, and despite being asthma-prone, bunion-footed and pitifully slow, I haven't been kicked out yet. Since my point of reference is from the back of the pack, I usually have to ask fellow track club members to turn around and show me their derrieres before I recognize them. Thankfully, my lack of talent hasn't prevented me from enjoying the world of running in Sarasota. Here, then, are some of my favorite courses.
The Ringling Causeway
My favorite "ahhh" moment is rounding the bend on U.S. 41 along the bayfront by Marina Jack Restaurant. Gazing at sailboats in the shimmering bay and chasing those early- morning endorphins is the best way to carpe diem. I usually make a quick stop at the bait shop, Hart's Landing, where the big yellow cooler with the coldest water in town is always perched on the railing for boaters and runners alike. After hydrating, I head towards Lido Key and the closest thing Sarasota has to a hill-the Ringling Causeway. (Serious runners may lament the lack of hill training, but we aging back-of-the-packers revel in Sarasota's flatness.) All my aches are forgotten when my feet gently thump over the grating on the bridge and I peer at the water below; I feel as if I'm floating in the air with the pelicans and seagulls.
Siesta Key Beach
While Lido Key is my favorite place to run alone, Siesta Key is where many locals gather for group runs. At the top of the list are the summer beach runs. The beach runs are co-sponsored by the Manasota Track Club and Sarasota County Parks and Recreation. Every Tuesday at about 6:30 p.m. from June through August, hundreds of runners of all ages line up to jog along the hard-packed sand on beautiful Siesta Key Beach. Who can resist running on the whitest sand in the world? The distances range from one mile for kids (all participants receive a ribbon) to a 5k for adults, although I've seen quite a few youngsters do the longer runs. My nine-year-old son Jarrod takes a free-spirited approach, zigzagging along the course, pouncing on sandcastles and chasing the gulls until they scatter into the sky. Afterwards, we all gather at the Siesta Beach pavilion, where the kids enjoy popsicles and the adults socialize in an atmosphere of a small-town picnic.
Although the beach runs are a summer event, the Manasota Track Club also hosts informal group runs along Siesta Key every Tuesday throughout the year. An evening sunset run starts about 6 p.m. in the parking lot in front of the Siesta Key pavilion. The meeting time and place have been the same for years, and the turnout ranges from 30 to 40 runners. A variety of ability levels are represented, so almost anyone can feel comfortable. Runners' ages range from the 20s to the 60s. Some train for upcoming marathons and others are just trying to outrun the middle-age spread. The course is along Midnight Pass Road towards Turtle Beach and back. It's an eight-mile trip, but you're welcome to turn around sooner if you want a shorter run.
Bill's Beer Run
Then there's Bill's Beer Run in October. Of the 20 or so area road races sanctioned annually by the Manasota Track Club, this is the hands-down favorite. This run was founded 14 years ago by track club member and Florida 100-mile ultra marathon record holder Bill Menard. Its purpose is to raise money for the club's operating costs and to help with the travel expenses for local track athletes. Bill's Beer Run is a five-mile race along scenic Casey Key. It's well attended (about 400 to 500 runners) and has the best post-race party around. Across the finish line await music, food and flowing kegs. Where else but at a road race can you find throngs of cheerful folks drinking beer at 9:30 in the morning?
Golf Course Runs
Running along golf courses in gated communities, especially the ones with condominiums, is a favorite routeof many runners. Condo buildings are a good place to find water fountains and clean bathrooms, and the quiet residential streets and minimal traffic are ideal. For the most part, runners are careful not to upset golfers and condo dwellers. On the rare occasion we encounter an unfriendly look or a tart, "May I help you?" as we attempt to scoot into a not-quite public restroom, we give them our best, "Well, hi, neighbor, and isn't this a nice change from driving about in my BMW?" look.
The best marathon-training run in Sarasota? Probably the approximately 20-mile jaunt that separates Siesta Key and Lido Key. The course begins at the Siesta Key Pavilion, continues along Midnight Pass to Higel, goes across the north bridge and down Orange Avenue to the bayfront along U.S. 41, then heads over the Ringling Causeway to Lido Key, with the turn-around at Lido Beach. There's a little bit of everything, from scenic waterfront to quaint village vistas, and enough public restrooms to ward off untimely visits to Bush Gardens (the euphemism runners use for peeing in the bushes). Jogging past the colorful shops on St. Armands Circle is a great way to do some high-speed window shopping. And no rule says you can't stop. "When I get to St. Armands, I always stop at Kilwin's Ice Cream for my reward," says one runner.
Nationally-and in Sarasota-more runners are lacing up their shoes to fight debilitating diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Typically, the runner commits to a marathon or endurance event and agrees to raise a predetermined amount of money for the cause. In exchange for his fund-raising efforts, the athlete receives transportation to the event, lodging, professional coaching and nutrition advice.
These events are dear to my heart. My son Christopher enjoyed more than two years of remission made possible by the research advances largely funded by these endurance events all over the country. Locally, the Suncoast Chapter of The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of America raised $266,529 in 2001. An additional $50,000 was raised in the annual Light the Night Walk on Siesta Beach.
Chris cheered Bob and me on as we completed marathons and raised $16,000 for cancer research. Yes, the same Bob who originally scoffed at my early running efforts did what all the best husbands do when faced with a stubborn female who wouldn't take no for an answer-he joined me.
Gotta run. Both Bob and I are fundraising and training for the Suzuki Rock 'N' Roll Marathon in San Diego, California. It's time to grab my water bottle, my asthma inhaler, a couple of my friends, and we're off on another run around paradise.
If you are searching for friends to keep you company on the trails, Sarasota offers a rich selection. In addition to regularly scheduled group runs with The Manasota Track Club (Mary Lenari, 955-8060, or Jim Julian, 342-7803), you can try the Bradenton Runners Club (Alan Meyer, 761-9069). Marathon training groups meet weekly on Saturday mornings in several locations. For a complete listing of all the local training runs, visit the track club Web site at www.manasotatrackclub.org.)Walkers are welcome at most events, and anyone from the casual jogger to the serious runner can find a group to run with almost any day of the week.